Austen’s use of irony in her novel offers important insights to her attitude about life through the experiences of her characters. What does Austen have to say about women, class mobility, and marriage based in the experiences of Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice? What did Elizabeth Bennet experience and what lessons did she “learn”? Can any of those lessons be applied to the experiences of women today? Why or why not?
Pride and Prejudice is a novel with many examples of irony. The term irony is used to describe a situation in which a statement or action is designed to portray a feeling or emotion that is opposite to what is actually being felt. It is a literary device that can be used humorously or to add layers of confusion and surprise to a plot. Jane Austen, in Pride and Prejudice, uses this device through both narration and her characters to mostly comic effect. The purpose of this paper is to explore Austen’s use of irony and how it relates to her views on women, marriage, and class. The paper will then explore the experiences of the protagonist, Elizabeth Bennet, and the lessons that she learnt through the course of the book. The final element will explore the application of these lessons and viewpoints to the experiences of women today.
One of the most famous opening lines of any novel is the first clue that the reader gets regarding the use of Irony in Austen’s novel. It is stated that “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” (Austen, 2000, p5). On the surface, this quote appears as though Austen is stating a fact about the nature of money and marriage. It gives a clue as to the topic of the book – marriage, social norms – but is later to be revealed as a form of verbal irony. Throughout the book, it is shown to be a contradiction in two main ways. The first is that many of the women in the book are seeking a man with a good fortune, rather than the other way around – some people had to marry in order to economically survive. The second is that Elizabeth Bennet is not seeking a man with a good fortune, nor does Mr. Darcy seem to be in search of a wife.
Later in the novel, Mr. Darcy also shows elements of irony in his speech. During a party, Miss Bingley is trying to engage with Mr. Darcy but Elizabeth is somewhat monopolizing his time, despite the fact that Elizabeth does not show any particular interest in Mr. Darcy. During this party, Mr. Darcy states “”My temper would perhaps be called resentful. My good opinion once lost, is lost forever” (Austen, 2000, p51). He is stating that he cannot go back upon a bad opinion once he has formed it, and that he makes up his mind in a determined manner. This is ironic because it turns out later not to be true. Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy have an uneasy relationship throughout the first half of the novel, and it seems as though they are very much resentful of each other. Despite this, Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth fall in love, which suggests that Darcy is aware that his opinion can be changed under the right circumstances. This quote also adds to the fear (for the reader) that Elizabeth will not be able to change Darcy’s mind about her once she realizes she is in love with him.
The relationship between Elizabeth, Wickham and Mr. Darcy also employs a heavy use of irony. Elizabeth states that “He has been so unlucky as to lose YOUR friendship…and in a manner which he is likely to suffer from all his life” (Austen, 2000, p80). She is saying this sarcastically, because she believes that Mr. Darcy is proud and unnecessarily ignoring Wickham despite their close relationship in childhood. It later becomes revealed that Austen is using sarcasm and irony here because in fact Wickham is unlucky to lose Mr. Darcy’s friendship, and he is an irredeemable character. This quote also illustrates Austen’s view on love and marriage quite succinctly – her main character is charmed by a man with little money over a man with a good income, Later, this will turn out to be the incorrect judgment.
In the final pages of the book, Elizabeth surprises the audience and her family members by becoming engaged to Mr. Darcy. She states “”I love him. Indeed he has no improper pride. He is perfectly amiable” (Austen, 2000, p316). She feels the need to state this because previously she has shown nothing but dislike of Mr. Darcy, and her family believe that she has entered into this arrangement for money only. Mr. Bennet believes that she is selling herself short for economic prosperity, but Elizabeth is stating that she feels true love. The characters outside of the couple believe that Elizabeth is choosing to follow the social norms of the time and ensure her financial security, which is ironic because Elizabeth has been stating throughout the book that this is not her aim. It is also ironic because it is a misunderstanding, and that she actually does love Mr. Darcy despite her earlier perceptions of his flaws.
Taking these examples of irony, it is interesting to consider why Austen was using them. It appears as though Austen is somewhat critical of the social norms of the time, the attitudes towards women and social mobility. In showing that characters can have complex approaches to love and marriage she is stating that not all men “in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife” (Austen, 2000, p5). She is showing that women are more likely to want this financial security, but also that financial security should not be the main aim of a marriage. She is also hinting that the current norms of social mobility are false, because they do not benefit everyone in that society and are rules that cannot be broken, particularly by strong women such as Elizabeth Bennet.
Throughout the plot of Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth also learns several lessons that are reflective of Austen’s portrayal and beliefs about society at the time. Elizabeth is surprised when her friend Charlotte gets married to a man that Elizabeth personally does not like. Charlotte states “”I am not romantic, you know; I never was” (Austen, 2000, p87). This shows Elizabeth that not all women are free to make the grand gestures of romanticism and love that she is able to, and that many women need to make decisions about marriage that are reflective of their financial needs. It is also somewhat ironic that Elizabeth, for all her disdain for this type of marriage, ends up marrying the most eligible bachelor in their society. It seems almost as though she took a dislike to Mr. Darcy because she did not want to follow the social trends of her culture.
There are many ways in which these lessons can be applied to the status of women today. In many cultures, women are still required to marry someone that is socially appropriate or can financially provide for them. Elizabeth learns that not all people have the same view of marriage as herself, which is something that can be applied by modern women trying to understand the marriages of their friends. There are also still elements of pressure on women to make “good” choices in their marriage, and the lessons that Elizabeth learns can be applied to these situations too. In using irony, Austen has highlighted some of the problems with a patriarchal society and the expectations of women and on women, which are still applicable today.
- Austen, J. (2000). Pride and Prejudice (Third Edition) (Norton Critical Editions). W. W. Norton.